Smile like you Dean it.

I know that it’s early and we really shouldn’t be getting too far in front of ourselves but the smiles are back and everyone seems to be looking forward to games again. The vibe, the promise, the hope, the football, the reciprocated respect – they’re all there. Whisper it quietly, but I think that we’ve re-found our mojo.

I had a text from my son on March 15th. “It looks like it’s going to be Dean Keates. What do you reckon?”

“There’s no point asking me” I replied. “Integral part of the Graydon miracle, 250+ appearances, captain, leader, Swindon away, Walsall boy, Walsall fan, icon – how can I judge that impartially?”

Indeed, how do we judge him impartially? In truth, I guess we shouldn’t even bother trying and just go with something that genuinely looks like a team that represents pretty much everything that this football club is about.

In truth, there was part of me that wanted neither of Adrian Viveash or Dean Keates when Jeff belatedly saw the wood from the trees and finally ended the misery under the previous incumbent. I hold both men in the very highest regard and wanted it to stay that way. Their service to this football club was magnificent and I didn’t want either legacy to suffer from struggling to piece together a silk purse from their sow’s ear of a managerial budget. Whilst the prospect of both, two bona-fide Walsall winners, truly excited me the fear of failure was equally concerning and I wanted them remembered for what they were. Stalwarts and winners, players who gave everything for the shirt, genuinely hated losing and improved our Football Club.

However, from the very moment that his appointment was announced, Keates began to allay these fears. With last season in its final furlong, our form dreadful and our place in the division under genuine threat I think it’s safe to conclude that time wasn’t exactly on Dean’s side. With the January transfer window long closed and unquestionably wasted and arguably our most effective midfielder ruled out for the season any improvement had to come from inside. Inheriting a squad that was on its knees, desperately short of experience, shot of confidence, unhealthily reliant on the creativity of one want-away player and (deservedly) lacking a significant level of respect from supporters just getting us over the season ending League One finishing line looked like a major challenge.

Wigan’s visit, a few days into his reign, was a free hit for Keates. I know that a few wondered if we could afford a manager sitting in the seats with what looked like a hands off approach. With so few opportunities left to generate points should Keates have been pitch side? To be honest I’m not sure it would have mattered, Wigan were levels above where we were, won without moving beyond second gear and therefore sitting in the stand learning was probably the best decision for the nine game fight ahead.

Those following nine games were horrible. Just two wins were generated, both last minute home victories against teams that would be relegated with draws at similarly relegated Oldham and the mathematically defining point at Bradford being the only positive returns.

Results proved just about enough, but things were already different however. The Keates effect was delivering much needed change.

Whitney’s Walsall could’ve gone and played Oldham a dozen times on that bitterly cold April night and would have lost them all. The Keates version led then, after being pulled back, refused to buckle as Oldham made the most of the strong wind in their backs and pinned us uncomfortably deep in our own half. Essentially we ended the game with an 8-1-1 formation spread across our 18 yard line, throwing bodies at every loose ball or shot, blocking crosses, limiting space, scrapping tooth and nail for the result that they eventually ground out. They dug in and just fought like they knew they couldn’t afford lose, which they simply couldn’t and collected a priceless point that they properly earned. Forget energy, effort & application – this was mutual responsibility mixed with organisation, work ethic and a willingness to fight as hard as they possibly could for each other and the badge on their shirt.

Ironically, at the venue where Whitney’s inherited team arguably blew their automatic promotion chances two years earlier this was unquestionably the evening where the team that he left behind rediscovered their backbone. They had re-calibrated their levels.

The dynamic attacking first half display against Wimbledon offered an insight into what post July would bring and had the referee not lost his head with the ridiculous last minute penalty decision in that game things might have been a lot more comfortable over the final stretch. Similarly we fought like we hadn’t remotely managed during the winter months in a tough loss at Scunthorpe. We were balanced, defensively tight, committed and really unlucky. The fulsome applause at the end signalling that the fractured levels of respect needed between pitch and terrace (yes, I’m showing my age) was mending. Likewise the mission accomplished, no-fucking-way-are-we-losing-here point at Bradford proved their capabilities, repeated the post-game two-way respect and confirmed the obvious.

That the Walsall we want and love were on their way back.

Fleetwood was year zero for the Keates era. He gave his fringe players 90 minutes to convince him or change his mind about them and essentially to a man they all failed. Keates made it pretty clear afterwards that he would be every bit as ruthless as contractual agreements allowed and then backed that claim up with action that mirrored this stern approach. The rebuild was on.

June & July bought some early transfer action with Keates nailing what must have been his number one priority by snatching Andy Cook from Tranmere’s grasp. The subsequent, relatively quick additions of Ginnelly and Ismail signalled the intent of how we were going to play and feed Cook.

And then nothing. Time and again Keates suggested that both additions and departures were close, only for deals to be scuppered. The clock was ticking loudly, nerves were fraying. And whilst everyone else seemed to lose their heads the manager remained calm, held his nerve and at the very last minute pulled a rabbit or four out of the hat.

The auction for Amadou Bakayoko certainly helped (don’t be surprised if he does really well – Bristol Rovers have an impeccable record of identifying untapped potential in strikers) and this combined with the ugly spat between Tranmere & Boreham Wood that spilled out Morgan Ferrier’s buy-out clause to make the low money / decent sell on clause purchase of Ferrier economically possible. Add in the known quantities of Isaiah Osbourne and Jack Fitzwater and the promise of Kane Wilson and Keates went into the opening day of this season on the back of a pretty effective summer. It wasn’t exactly the hardest bar to climb above but this has been our best transfer window since the shutters-up tweet of January 2016.

This season has obviously started well, the team Keates puts out are the absolute epitome of the player who graced our midfield in the late nineties / early noughties and again in the Dickie Dosh Championship season. What’s more the atmosphere around the place is excitedly brilliant. Currently there is an unmistakable similarity to the atmosphere, expectation and surprise that preceded the start of 98/99 and whilst I’m not in any way suggesting that the next eight months will pan out in similar levels of magnificence I honestly don’t see any way that it can possibly be as miserable as the past two. That alone is progress.

This is a team in the whole meaning of the word. They work as one, win as one, draw as one and will eventually lose as one. Currently the sum as a whole looks greater than sum of the individual parts, and this is part of the undoubted attraction to them. They have a plan, they understand their roles within the team, protect their goal like their lives depend on it, revel in their individual battles and attack with breath-taking speed.

They’re exciting, honest, demanding of each other and, as last Saturday again proved, they don’t accept defeat especially easily. If there is any fear, and there must be some, they’re doing a bloody good job of hiding it.

They’re also proving that you can get results in this division by putting round pegs in round holes, by being organised, fit and disciplined and that 4-4-2 is far from dead. They respect their manager, each other and the shirt they’re wearing and as long as they do this it’s pretty evident they will receive at least the same in return from those of us who pay to follow them.

Last but absolutely not least, they are easy to follow and a genuine joy to watch.

I also love the suit. It’s a small touch (pun not intended) but unquestionably demonstrates who is leading this team. The physio carries the bucket, the fitness & conditioning guy puts on his trackies and the manager wears the suit.

In summary, I guess that the last few paragraphs prove the point that it was pointless for my son to ask me to be balanced about Dean Keates, but similarly I don’t think I’m over egging the pudding. Yes the football is a little more functional than the purists might like but it’s a practical solution to an impractical budget. And no-one will ever remember the Ray Graydon era for 65% possession and total football.

There will be lows – it’s impossible to have a team this young, inexperienced or stepping us so many levels without a few winless streaks. Confidence will come and go. But, as of now, we all enjoy the weekend knowing that win, lose or draw we have a team and a manager who will fight for every point and we can be proud of. We will do well to remember this in the tough(er) times.

Things are good right now and, as far as the football side of things go, we appear to be a happy club. I just worry about how empty Dan Mole’s Saturday nights are without a twitter feed full of sack the clown notifications but I guess he’ll cope somehow. Credit where it’s due by the way – that £5 Northampton ticket offer was a major call that turned into an absolute masterstroke. Without that, and the win I truly believe it generated, the landscape might be significantly different today.

But it isn’t.

And the turn-around in team performance, aspirations and atmosphere inside five months is verging upon astonishing.

We are Walsall, and we always will be irrespective of who is manager or how we play. But when we’re like this I feel it reminds us of who and what Walsall truly are and it brings all of us closer together.

I’m also acutely aware that I’m falling head over heels for this incarnation and I’ve no intention of fighting it.

Team and fans together. Mojo intact and long may this continue.

We are back. This is Walsall. Thanks Dean.

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The Late, Late Season Preview.

Apologies for the shoddy timing. It’s a poor excuse but we’ve all been busier than Keatsy’s mobile over the past couple of weeks. However, as with Jeff’s rationale on employing our previous manager, we got there in the end.

Summer Business.

Jonah

There’s definitely been a change for the better. Dean has shown he’s not afraid to go rough diamond hunting at National League level, something the club has never really done at least at the top end of that particular market. Obviously he’s using his first-hand experience at the moment, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this is something he will have seen working well in his time as a Peterborough player.

In refusing to be held to ransom by players and their agents earlier on in the summer and for not panicking and signing players just for the sake of it, Dean has already elevated himself above his immediate predecessor.

Despite arriving with a reputation for clean sheets at Wrexham, Dean quickly worked out how woeful we were up front last season and targeted Andy Cook as the spearhead of the attack pretty much as soon as the close season began. Then it was onto the supply line with the welcome return of Zele Ismail and the more surprising (but equally welcome) return of Josh Ginelly.

When asked about the centre of defence at the Meet the Manager evening a couple of weeks ago, Dean talked encouragingly about the importance of working on the training ground to get the shape of the team right and of ensuring that everyone knows their job and, once that’s in place, any decent defender can slot into the system.

Even the ‘fitz the bill’ pun in the official announcement couldn’t overshadow the good news about Jack Fitzwater’s season long loan. Then along came the highly-rated Kane Wilson who will go some way to fill the gap created by the awful injury to Kory Roberts. I’ve a feeling there may be one more loan addition before the month is out but that was some good pretty decent business.

And then just to freak us out completely, in the final week of the window we go and sign Morgan Ferrier for an actual fee. Then there’s a totally unexpected bidding war for Ama Bakayoko, a great deal for everyone concerned (especially if they’ve negotiated the sell-on % properly) and a chance for a fresh start for him. Baka certainly goes with my best wishes, very few young players use their status to attempt to do the kind of charity work he did. Good luck fella.

And then we go and sign Josh Gordon for the time honoured ‘undisclosed’ fee and finally Dean rights a wrong of last summer by re-signing Isaiah Osbourne.

Who are you and what have you done with the real Walsall FC?

Oh and we’ve offloaded Mark Gillespie and signed two keepers too.

Richard

I was sanguine about our pre-season business last week, even on the season’s Eve when Twitter appeared to be in meltdown over the lack of signings. I felt that the four signatures we had bagged moved us on from last season: Cook is an established goalscorer in the lower leagues, and has a point to prove; Ginnelly was hard done by last time he was at the club, ill used by Whitney and someone with great dead ball delivery, and has since flourished at Lincoln; Ismail offers rich attacking intent, including the ability to carry the ball; Dunn offers experience and is known to Keates. As a result, organised forms of trust seem to be an integral part of the make-up of Keates’ tenure, in a way that they never were with Whitney.

In fact, with the potential for Keates to revitalise the careers of Morris and Kinsella, and enabling younger squad members like Candlin and Kouhyar to emerge, plus the return of Edwards, I felt that things weren’t as bad as they may appear on a smart phone. Equally, Dobson had begun to grow into the team and himself since his return at the back end of the season. In particular, the strengthening of our attacking options by bringing in players who had become established at lower levels through gametime, rather than by bringing in young loanees from higher up, was an interesting mark of our early business.

It is also notable that we are relying on a defensive base established by Whitney, but one that he was clearly unable to organise. Clearly, Keates said that he is willing to listen to offers for players, and has bought in cover at full-back, and he has to work with the players he has. However, I wonder if we may have a stronger base than we thought when we were conceding lame goals from set pieces and crosses last season. It also makes me question whether we were probably more difficult to beat than we thought, in a pretty average division. As Saddlers Stats over on Twitter was fond of reminding us, Whitney’s teams never went on long losing runs.

Our pre-season business (and our response to it) was shaped by the injury to Roberts, which showed the paucity of centre-half cover (even though he had played well at full-back towards the end of last season). At that point, John Guthrie’s value was amplified, and whilst I had questioned his signing by Whitney, now I can see how valuable he is to the team to the point that when he went off for a blood injury against Plymouth, I was concerned.

Initially, I also felt that our pre-season business was shaped by the Club preparing an infrastructure, in terms of the coaching staff around Keates, for a promotion campaign from League 2. However, it now seems that the Board have bought themselves some time by offsetting criticism of pre-season with a final supermarket sweep. Yet I am not sure that this isn’t more by luck than judgement, given that on August 2 Keates was decrying how he had lost out on two marquee signings and we looked thin on the ground.

Yet the additions made in the last week have changed the outlook. The additions of Wilson, Ferrier and Fitzwater, alongside Gordon and Osbourne, bring an interesting extension to the early business. Although Keates stated that he wanted signings over loanees, his hands appeared increasingly tied, and as a result the return of Fitzwater alongside Wilson was no surprise. The signing of Gordon, a young player from higher up on a relatively long-term deal with a point to prove in a first-team, Ferrier as a young player from the lower leagues known to Keates, and Osbourne as an established player with acumen, intelligence and drive, gives an indication of Keates’ overall recruitment strategy. It also marks the end of our overreliance on a single player, as was the case for the last two years.

The return of Osbourne is particularly notable, and makes a point about the culture change of the club between Whitney and Keates, and how statements about his previous contract details have not affected the deal being done. Does this signal a change in the attitude of the Club’s owner? Last season, in a meeting with supporters, Bonser was clear that he was a fan and wanted the best for the club – I almost felt he was desperate to give up the responsibility and to be able to retire. I wonder the extent to which he has bought into the idea of Keates-as-local-hero, able to give him one last promotion, one last hurrah, on a shoestring? Although it’s a lot to ask of Keates, maybe the work that pivots around him could enable the reintegration of Bonser into the fabric of the club as a fan – that would seem to be an interesting piece of pre-season business.

However, what this pre-season has given me is more questions about the future of the club. What do the board want? What has Keates been able to agree with the board, in terms of aims and direction of travel? It is clear that he does have an idea for patterns of play, building partnerships on the pitch, for specific forms of movement and running, for the types of players he wants at the club (hence releasing Gillespie, Baka, Cuvelier, Flanagan), for the psychology he wishes to invoke (not the public denigration favoured by Whitney, rather forms of negative and positive reinforcement), and for the reconnection between club, fans and community. There is a kernel of a plan, and yet the day before the season started it looked pretty desperate to some. So have we arrived where we are more by luck than judgement? Is this just how it is for clubs like Walsall? We have put in place a coaching infrastructure, and a squad capable of performing in an average division, but how far do the Board want to push this?

Daz

It goes without saying that our budget means we’re almost last in line when it comes wages offered to L1 capable players and it has been this way for quite a while.

The football blueprint that Dean Smith devised and delivered appeared to work extremely well in the hands of a manager who was capable of improving players but proved almost equally as flawed in the hands of his successor’s successor, who couldn’t. Smith’s coaching and tactical nous complimented his adeptness at blending imported potential that others missed (or didn’t fancy) with the occasional proven asset. A healthy youth conveyor filled in the blanks and a vibrant, self-improving low-investment strategy was born. What could go wrong?

Sadly his departure signalled the beginning of the end of what was an admirable and successful method of squad development.

The less said about his eventual successor’s recruitment policy, ability and capabilities the better. My head still shakes at quite how he got quite so long to do quite so much damage. However, we are where we are and it’s extremely difficult to conclude anything but the fact Dean Keates picked up a first team in a proper mess. Usually, the constant short term nature of contacts offered would mean that once Keates had dragged us over the 50 point line he could dump those he didn’t rate or fancy and rebuild from a relatively clear base. However, the club (once bitten, twice shy) subtly tweaked contract policy after the summer 2016 exodus, meaning Keates entered this summer with his hands partially tied.

He has worked effectively however, blending his knowledge and experience of the lower professional leagues and scouting academy football to deliver what looks to be a hungry and improvable squad that’s full of pace and wont shy away from a battle.

The relatively early captures of Cook, Ismael & Ginnelly gave him some mid-July breathing space and the opportunity to dodge the kind of panic deal or two that always proves to be the most expensive of errors.  And whilst most of us began to get pretty jittery in the run up to August 4th Keates held his nerve and got what at first glance appears to be some very tidy business done at the back end of the window. Given that Keates referred to missing out on a couple of marquee signings. I suspect it’s safe to assume that some of last week’s captures weren’t Plan A targets, something that probably makes his work even more impressive.

Whilst one or two exits short of what I think Keates wanted, the departures from the squad have clearly helped. The common sense decision that Mark Gillespie made gave Keates some early salary elbow room and last week’s unexpected auction for Amadou Bakayoko provided the manager with increased bargaining power at the point where he most needed it.

Last Saturday’s excellent win and cohesive display provided early evidence that we’re capable of not needing to look over our shoulders all season and if Isaiah Osbourne is anywhere near the player who departed 15 months ago he will eventually join Joe Edwards in a four way battle for two midfield places.

Defensively, the horrible injury to Kory Roberts leaves us one short but the return of a known quantity in Fitzwater was a shrewd signing. Our recent record of young defenders is slightly hit and miss of late with Pennington, McCarthy & Fitzwater being balanced by Toner & Donnellan. For that reason I’d like to see Kane Wilson in action before I get too excited.

Darren

I think I speak for everyone when I say that what I think about the summer business today (Saturday), is very different to what I would be typing only 8 days ago. I complain about the club as much as the next human, but you have to give the club credit. I know that is a weird feeling for most, but I think a bit more luck than by judgment, we have ended up with an exciting squad – built for purpose.

In goal, we have added some experience in Chris Dunn, to add cover to the superb Liam Roberts. Fitzwater and Wilson add some real quality to the back line, and coupled with the burgeoning Guthrie (Who I admit to thinking he wasn’t good enough), it looks as though Deano has his wish in an improved back line.

However… My only rely gripe with the entire first 11 is the full backs (ignoring Wilson for a second). Devlin and Leahy are not good enough defensively, and I am convinced Deano thinks this too. Unfortunately they are remnants of the Whitney era, and I would not be surprised if they are moved on next summer. For all Leahy’s contributions going forward (and magnificent free kick last week), he simply cannot defend. Andy Cook’s scathing response to him after conceding the goal last week is indicative of what we all know. Nicky Devlin is a lovely bloke, but not good enough.

The midfield is very exciting. We have real pace and skill on the wings in Ginnelly and Zeli, craft, guile and workmate in the midfield with Dobson, and now the commanding presence of Osbourne. Very impressed. I have been calling for Adam Chambers to be sent to pasture for two year now – and last Saturday confirmed what a few of us have thought for a while. His legs have had it.

Up front, the Sumer acquisitions look to be brilliant business. Andy Cook look’s like a club legend of the future, Ferrier looks a powerful sidekick, and Gordon offers pace. What is impressive is the fact we have not only spent money, but have variety in our forwards. I can’t remember the last time we had so many options up top.

Season Expectations

Jonah

I always felt we were in for a better season than last and that in Dean Keates we’ve found a manager who knows what he wants but crucially knows how to get it too. Ok so 36 hours before kick-off last week I was getting a bit twitchy but Dean has held his nerve and there were plenty of positives to take from the performance in the opening day win over Plymouth.

So what will we be seeing on the pitch over the next 9 months? Well, I get the feeling that opposition scouts might do well to save themselves a bit of time and just file reports that say ‘4-4-2, well organised, two forwards who’ll give your defence a hard time all of the time, width, a fair bit of pace and plenty of hunger and determination’.

Where will we finish? It’s understandable that a lot of people are looking at what the Shrews did last year or making comparisons with the teams that Dean Keates played in and drawing conclusions that this could be our year. And after all it is the 20th anniversary of the truly astonishing first Graydon promotion season (a season I’d happily have on repeat in a kind of Groundhog Year way).

However I’m not so sure it’s that straightforward, we are a fairly inexperienced team, there will inevitably be injuries, suspensions (there are a couple of main contenders) and dips in form. Not that this can’t be overcome but a top ten finish similar to the Brandy/Paterson/Gr*gg team of 2013 would represent significant progress.

Richard

If this had been written last Friday, then I would have been questioning whether we could stay up. I was sanguine about this because I’m bored of going to the same grounds year after year. Akin to that long barren patch in Division 3 between 1963 and 1979, the 11 years since we won the division below have been monotonous and regressive both on and off the pitch. Life following Walsall FC has been a mirror image of life under the politics of austerity since the financial crash in 2007: scratching around to make ends meet with no apparent plan and having to sell off the family silver.

However, the last week has rekindled some hope for the season. This has less to do with the opposition we face in yet another average division, and the business they have done. Moreover, it is clear that we wish to build something in a way that was not possible under Whitney, but which mirrors less Ray Graydon’s era and more Dean Smith’s. I know that some will question this assertion because we have deified the former and reviled the latter. Moreover, the discipline and hard running of that Graydon team is seen to be in Keates’s DNA. Yet I wonder the extent to which Keates wishes to create something more lasting, which was never talked about under Graydon but which was under Smith – namely a meaningful five year plan that could create a legacy based on progressive play and an appropriate mix of youth and experience.

Moreover, from the friendlies against Villa and Ajax, and the opening game against Plymouth, a number of themes seemed to emerge. The first is the ability for partnerships across the pitch within the team. In particular, the Dobson – Ginnelly/Morris – Ferrier, and Dobson – Ismail – Ferrier have offered movement, pace and running, which were lacking over the past two seasons and that offer a range of possibilities for getting through and behind the opposition. This also offers more fluidity to what could be a rigid 4-4-2. It is important for Keates to find those partnerships elsewhere, in particular down the flanks, and with Kinsella as the holding midfielder and the centre halves. The second is Keates’ willingness to move Kinsella into Chambers’ position. Clearly, this may have been forced upon him through injury, but I have my doubts that a 38 year old has the energy to act as the pivot in a team playing 4-4-2, without that team’s ability to switch quickly to 4-5-1 when defending. Dobson – Kinsella – Osborne fills me with hope. The third is how pivotal Dobson is this team and its pattern of play. The fourth is how impressive the three new players who were dropped into the team at short notice looked in the Plymouth game. This bodes well for those who have just joined. In fact, these new signings give us the option to move from a structured and defensive 4-4-2 to a possible 4-5-1 or 4-3-3, and the potential exists for flexibility. Finally, it is important to note that eight of the starting 11 against Plymouth had been through a relegation battle with Walsall last season. We have collectively been critical of Whitney’s recruitment for its lack of leaders and experience, and in particular the failure to recruit players who were battle-hardened. It is less the case now.

As a result, my expectations for the season are raised. It is important to note that Keates ended last season wearing a tracksuit on the sidelines, as a mark of caretaking the team to safety. This season he has begun in a suit, and this sends a different psychological message about his management. It feels that something has clicked in the last week, and we will need to see how this plays out in the next month as the team finds its feet. However, I feel reassured about safety in this godforsaken division, and I feel the possibility of a cup run. With a following wind and some luck in terms of injuries, suspensions and so on, we could be building something over the course of Keates’s management that progresses towards the play-offs.

Daz

I’m genuinely hopeful & excited – which is pretty rare.

When Dean Keates arrived my son asked me what I thought. I scrunched my face, shook my head and told him that I couldn’t give him a rational answer. “Three promotions, an integral part of the Graydon miracle, Swindon, over 250 Walsall appearances, local boy, Walsall fan – how can I give you a balanced answer about the guy?”

I’m desperately fighting not getting carried away but it’s so hard to not be incredibly impressed with the work he’s done so far. We’re organised, have a system, our shape out of possession is impressive and we can spring with pace and cutting edge when we get it back. In short, I think he’s taken the shambles he inherited built a hungry squad that appears more silk purse than sow’s ear.

However, offer me 51 points in every August and I’d take them, and this season is no different. Honestly I think we can do more, and whilst I don’t see a play-off challenge I don’t necessarily want one either, primarily because I don’t believe that we’re ready to deal with the consequences of that.

What we are going to see is a functional 4-4-2 compiled of a team that will fight for every point, respect the shirt they’re wearing, fear no-one and hopefully prove almost everyone wrong and not be looking at what’s behind us at Easter. That lad whose drive, energy and ability proved to be the engine of the Graydon miracle manifested across an entire squad. There’ll no doubt be lows on the way but I’m really looking forward to this season.

Oh, and a FA Cup 3rd round cup tie is overdue.

Darren

Please, please, please let us get past a round in any sort of competition (barring the joke cup). I will keep this short, but I think this season sone of progression and stability. It is going to take a year or two to sort the shambles out from the Whitney era, both with moving some of the squad on, and changing the philosophy of the club. We had become an absolute farce, and I still cannot believe it was allowed to go on so long. We now move into a new era, and hopefully it will be lined with positivity and progress.

I would be very content with 10th-14th.

Any Other Business?

Jonah

AOB 1.

Another transfer window has closed and Troy remains a Watford player. Is it time to finally accept that it’s never going to happen?

AOB 2.

Walsall-Ajax the return leg next summer? Just sort it.

Richard

The World Cup taught me that English former professional footballers have one heuristic for analysing football, namely perceptions of a player’s character, which were generally projections of their own desires/failings onto that person. No ability to unpick psychology, patterns of play, the space-time of the game, person-management and so on.

Elsewhere, those journalists schooled in Europe or South America were able to discuss each of these characteristics, alongside alternative conceptions of football, namely ‘the other football’ that is defined by incidents and narratives that take place off-the-ball or as a means of gaming matches, for instance by playing the officials. This is what led to the Guardian Football Daily World Cup podcast defining its Shithousery XI. I would be more than happy if Walsall FC developed its own approach to shithousery as a more nuanced, collective appreciation of the game, and especially if it moved us away from our obsession with fetishising specific players because of their alleged hard-man charactistics (which then act as mirrors for denigrating those we perceive do not have those characteristics, and who we then tend to badge as lazy).

I refuse to sit in the upper tier behind the goal because of the butcher’s flaps – those awful pieces of plastic, redolent of the curtain that separates the butcher’s shop from the butchery behind. That we have to push through these flaps to get to our seats and that we have to push through another set to get to the gent’s toilets turns my stomach, precisely because boys/men have a tendency not to wash their hands and I cannot imagine what is smeared over that plastic at face height. Unless I’ve missed something fundamental, I would see it as a brave new dawn, and a fundamental part of the Dean Keates’ revolution, if the butcher’s flaps could be torn down.

Daz

AOB 1 – Scouting.

Seriously, how can you allow your manager to have no scouting network? I noted a few times over the last knockings of Whitney’s time here that others should shoulder their burden of responsibility and whilst Whitney created this scenario, he needed to have been stopped by his seniors.

That Keates (or any Walsall manager) appears to have to allocate part of his budget to a scouting network seems equally wrong. By default we should have one and the cost should be deducted from his budget up front. That stops the same ultra-short term nonsensical thinking happening again.

Similarly, the whole issue of still needing four players 36 hours before the football season starts has to be partially related to this. Out of the four players signed, Keates knew one directly and claims to have spent months trying to sign another. The other pair, Ismael & Ginnelly have been here before, all of which means we hadn’t recruited a player before the season started that that our scouting system had independently identified. That, for a club so reliant on finding players other L1 teams aren’t looking at, is disconcerting.

Having no scouting network can never be allowed to happen again.

AOB 2 – Football Club ownership.

I’d written a (very) long piece about how desperately we need a change and that events of the last 10 days shouldn’t distract us from that need. I’ll save it for another time but I don’t envisage the Keates era distracting me from concluding that our football model within the greater business is tired and outdated. We need a change.

Darren

Can we please play in white shirts at home please? Let’s play in a kit no one else plays in – lets take that as our identity. I know that a few won’t agree with that – but those are probably the ones that still wanted Whitney to remain in charge… (joking, of course…).

I echo Daz’s comments above – don’t let the recent influx of players influence the way this club is being run from the top. Stef and Dan are doing the absolute best, but until Jeff really does figure out some exit strategy, we are slaves to his dominion.

When Muddy Waters Clear

Lincoln City v Walsall

Division 2, Saturday 24th April, 1999

Walsall: Walker, Gadsby, Pointon, Henry, Viveash, Roper (Green), Wrack, Steiner (Eyjoffsson), Rammell, Keates, Larusson (Mavrak).

Att: 4,588.

Sincil Bank, Lincoln and it rained for most of the afternoon. Not everyone’s idea of Utopia but on one memorable Saturday in late April 1999 the muddy waters of an unexpected promotion race suddenly cleared and we found ourselves sat in the departure lounge of third tier football.

An afternoon where if I could have been anywhere in the world with anyone I wanted I’d still have chosen to be in Lincoln with my mates. For this was payback time on a truly epic scale. All those often painful, regularly dreadful and occasionally embarrassing afternoons scrambling around in the gutter that was the bottom reaches of the Third Division were about to be repaid on a never to be forgotten April afternoon. For the small band of fans whose patience, sense of humour and togetherness had somehow got them thorough the previous decade their time had come, their account had matured, the pay-out was underway and their party was commencing.

Whilst the success achieved at The Millennium Stadium and the Oldham home game (a week after this) had been very public occasions the Sincil Bank experience was a much more private affair. Sure, the away following that afternoon was in greater numbers than for much of the previous decade but the somewhat unexpected nature of events that afternoon, as the season accelerated to its conclusion, meant that only regular Saddlers supporters were in attendance and this arguably served to enhance the whole experience.

Like the vast majority of games during the 1990’s you didn’t need to be there half an hour early to guarantee a decent view, going to the toilet didn’t require planning an a near military scale and you didn’t walk past a hundred people wondering where were they when we weren’t very good. Those who made it to Lincoln had served their time

However, the mediocrity that proceeded this momentous season did have its benefits. A real unity grew on those lower division terraces as people from all walks of life, who had little in common apart from their chosen Saturday afternoon interest forged a bond that served us wonderfully well as Manchester City’s form ensured that things got a little tight in the spring of 1999. This was a group of fans who had seen the downs, were determined to experience the ups and had learned to be patient. When things weren’t going to plan they knew their role. I recall being mystified when a friend who was a fan of an opposition side explained how positive they felt the support we gave our team was. “Positive support from the first whistle” was how I remember it described. It just felt normal from where I was, but then, for Walsall at that time it was the norm. We had learned from the lean times and we were better prepared when the good times rolled.

It doubtless helped that the team spirit at that time was probably at an all time high. Ray Graydon’s fresh wind had blown much of the previous stagnation away and lifted the whole club. Capture5.JPGOut went the désintéressé, désengagé, insensible à l’argent conduit individuals that had an abundance of talent but almost zero commitment who, alongside a truly hopeless manager, had threatened to lead us back into the division of doom. In their place, a team of free transfers, promising youngsters  & a couple of misfits who collectively bonded like no other team I’ve ever seen. Indeed they were the only team I’ve ever seen that were better on grass than they ever were on paper.

Graydon’s legendary discipline almost certainly helped, but the togetherness appeared to be team generated and with both dressing room and terraces emitting an attitude of all for one for all, we unexpectedly found ourselves on a bit of a roll.

Whilst Andy Rammell’s inspirational contribution appeared to set the entire tone at the club (and ridiculing his free transfer from Southend status) it was Darren Wrack who had given us that something extra. Capture2Wrack, similarly, appeared to have something to prove. Being marginalised at Grimsby cannot have been an enjoyable time and he appeared hell bent all season on proving his quality to both an appreciative public and his former paymasters.

Grimsby didn’t know what they were missing. Most of his fourteen goals that season were winning efforts and following his goal at Lincoln his next goal, just seven days later, paved the way to promotion. Given that the success that this team achieved was very much based on the team ethic it is probably a little unfair togreen focus on one player. Rammell quickly became the darling of the terraces and an almost talismanic figure, but for me Wrack was the difference between us, and the rest. He played in every minute of every fixture, left his mark on so many of them and it was fitting that when the promotion push became an almighty shove he was the one who made it happen.

Strangely, this was the only occasion that season that Wrack didn’t line up on the wide right of midfield. Following Jason Brissett’s sending off in our previous fixture Ray Graydon put his principles on discipline before team selection and had to juggle his XI to overcome his decision not to select a natural left sided midfielder. Added to the fact that Chris Marsh was suspended after collecting a booking in the game before and it’s evident that Graydon’s ‘principles over short-term need’ philosophy was a massive call. Wrack swapped sides, leaving Matt Gadsby to play without our most effective player in front of him and a slightly unbalanced Saddlers side struggled to overpower a Lincoln side that were fighting an altogether different battle at the opposite end of the table.

This was an era before mobiles & score update apps and rumours had circulated all afternoon that closest rivals Manchester City were losing at home and only when the half time announcement of that score came through did I accept this as the truth. Bullshit often spread like a Mexican wave across a stadium in pre-mobile days and Rule 1 was always dismiss it until someone with a radio could confirm it.

Bizarrely the one piece of news that offered us a bit of breathing space in the chase for promotion merely served to increase the tension up another notch. The door was ajar and opportunity knocked. The feeling of needing to maximise the opportunity was almost suffocating whilst our inability to prize open the Lincoln back line was inexplicably draining. The second half raced along and chances were almost as non-existent as the news of a City equaliser. Faces I’d known for a very long time became tenser and tenser as the afternoon advanced.

Then, in a flash, the moment arrived.

It had taken seventy seven minutes of discipline and toil. As Lincoln pushed forward in search of an unlikely winner a Nicky Henry through ball caught a tiring Imps back line square and flat footed. Darren Wrack sprang a previously impeccable offside trap and found himself one on one with the Lincoln goalkeeper.

He ran towards the goal behind which stood an increasingly frenzied away following. This was our moment, the opportunity to achieve what we hadn’t even set out to do. The promised land of the (then) First Division beckoned. The home goalkeeper tried to narrow the angle but Wrack was just too good. A little ‘shimmy’ saw the keeper grasping at thin air and Wrack faced an open goal from 6 yards out.

Desperately, defenders tried to close and narrow Wrack’s target but it was to no avail. Twisting his body slightly he connected with his more trusty right foot and the ball hit the back of an empty net unchallenged. Ecstasy unleashed, it was truly mind blowing moment.

Capture3Wrack ran over to the edge of the terrace to continue his celebrations. Drenched in sweat and coated in a layer of mud that spoke volumes about commitment, Wrack was instantly engulfed by joyous supporters. Given the moment, given the score and given the stakes it was a truly iconic moment.

For thirty seconds the world stood still and waited for Walsall to stop celebrating. For those thirty seconds nothing else mattered, our hopes and dreams were being played out before our disbelieving eyes and, unusually for Walsall, it was all going to plan.

The hard part had been done, now it was time to hang on.

The fact that we were going to sit back and hold on to what we’d got was never in doubt. During much of this remarkable season we’d taken our only chance and defended like our lives depended upon it. Ray Graydon liked his 1-0’s. Thirteen minutes plus stoppage time remained not only between Walsall and three points but also between Manchester City and none. The only other serious contenders were Preston North End but their game was all but over given they had a 2 goal lead at home to Millwall.

For thirteen long minutes Lincoln threw everything they had at our flat back 10 and we retreated further and further towards our 18-yard line and behind. It was like the Alamo, every conceivable delivery into our danger area followed. Long balls, high balls, wide balls, the kitchen sink, and each time it was met by a heroic defensive header away, only for the ball to be returned longer and higher.

Lincoln huffed and puffed, desperate in their search for a precious point that would aid their survival aspirations, but as full time approached they just couldn’t blow our house down.

Then with utter horror the reserve official raised the board that demanded that 5 additional minutes would be played. No-one seemed sure where they all came from but the one thing that Saddlers fans were in no doubt of was that these 300 seconds were going to feel like an eternity.

The tension during those five minutes was unbelievable. Every time a ball was hoisted into out penalty box the visiting enclosure collectively held its breath. Equally the sight of Richard Green and Adrian Viveash’s foreheads pounding the ball from whence it came allowed a moment of anxiety release.

But like the home games against Stoke and Gillingham and countless away performances we somehow held on. The referee’s final whistle confirming our victory was met with huge celebrations exaggerated by the relief of success.

And they deserved to celebrate. Lincoln made this particular afternoon as difficult as any we faced during that incredible season, it’s just that they weren’t good enough to hurt us in the way that Fulham and the other better teams in the division could. Shirts, shorts, socks and skin were covered in mud as these heroes in green fought tooth and nail for the result they knew they needed to get. Every challenge was competitive, most challenges were won and nothing was surrendered on a swamped pitch that drained bodies and an atmosphere that must have equally drained minds. There were a few games in the Graydon miracle season where we won on a particular afternoon because we wanted it more and we were prepared to dig deeper. This was one of them. We wanted this much more and dug much deeper. Acceptance of defeat was never an option.

But how our rivals had finished? Surely Wycombe couldn’t hang on at Maine Road? Those who did have a Nokia house-brick called home for news. We needed good news and we needed it quickly.

The frustration of waiting for teletext to scroll through to the correct page was unbelievable. Indeed almost as unbelievable as the confirmation that City had indeed lost at home to Wycombe and that Preston had blown their two-goal advantage in to final six minutes. Spontaneous celebrations started in the streets surrounding Sincil Bank as the realisation that we were all but there began to sink in. The pre-game mathematical mountain of an eight points from four games had become a shallow slope. Suddenly, it had become two points in three and even Walsall couldn’t blow it from here. We were on our way upCapture4.JPG

I’m still not sure why we stopped on the M42 services so close to home but we did, and we bumped into many friends who had also travelled to the game. I looked at them and they looked back. “Can’t believe that we’re gonna do it” spilled simultaneously and almost unbelievingly out of half a dozen mouths. The realisation of what we’d achieved over the previous 43 games, almost refusing to sink in. Other Saddlers fans appeared over the next quarter of an hour and the same thing was repeated over and over again.

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The conclusion of the return journey saw us pass the Wycombe team bus returning in the opposite direction back to Buckinghamshire. We gratefully nodded across the carriageway.

It was almost like it was meant to be.A week later on an unforgettable afternoon at Bescot we overpowered Oldham and reached the promised land of First Division football. The Graydon miracle was complete. Even now, I’m not completely sure how we actually did it although I do know that nobody could ever say that we didn’t deserve it.

What a season, what a team, what a manager and Lincoln away – what an afternoon.

 

2017-18 Season Review

OK, this is a long one, but it’s what we think of what we’ve seen this year. Get yourself a brew or a beer and if you make it to the end, please leave your comments in the box below.

1. Season Review

Richard
It’s been an abject season. A season without progress on or off the field. A season when we increasingly look like a tired and forlorn outfit, unable to develop any momentum in terms of pattern of play, recruitment of players, engagement with the community or fans, governance and sustainability. We have gone over the mistake that was the Board’s decision to appoint Jon Whitney as manager. This appointment was the easy option and amplified the lack of due diligence and succession planning that has dogged the Club. I do see it as a mistake for the Club, and one that set us back from where we might have been. It was a waste of limited time, energy and resources.

The things that have been screaming out at me are as follows.

Did I really care if we got relegated? Really? And I don’t say this out of some form of self-harm or self-sabotage, rather I wondered if it would be an opportunity to reboot the club at a lower level and to visit some grounds that I haven’t seen for a while or before. And it’s only a game, right? Also, I am so bored of League 1. I am so bored of visiting the same grounds, and of celebrating more goals, more points, more wins, more games in this forsaken division, with seemingly no way out of it. It feels like Dante’s first circle of hell, which we remember is limbo. This is a space described by Dorothy L. Sayers as being populated by “those without opportunity of choice”. These cursed individuals are not condemned to the hell of the damned (non-league or life at the Moulinex), but they nonetheless remain condemned to live a deficient form of life, unable to progress and staying mired in the mundane. And since Dean Keates scored that goal away at Swindon all those years ago, we have had season after season of a deficient form of life (excepting one or two).

Have I given up on despair? I gave up on despairing over the appointment of Whitney during his first full season in charge. But I never gave up on being frustrated about the lack of due diligence, the ongoing failure to address his weakness in communicating, his language and his calling out of players, his lack of a plan and his playing style, all of which reflected on governance at the football club. Yet, the appointment of Keates was a public relations masterstroke by the Club, which takes some of the heat off them, for a while at least. Moreover, that appointment, bringing in Andy Davies, improved defensive structure, George Dobson’s goal against Northampton, and giving Dobson the captain’s armband against Fleetwood, have collectively made me reflect on hope. We are all suckers for hope.

As a result, because this has been such a pitiful, hopeless season, the tendency is to point towards next season, and what might be. The tendency is to think that another world is possible. Yet I am drawn to the notes from the meeting between club and fans in February, and I can see that whilst another world is possible the current one feels worn out. All played out. I spent years as Chair of the Trust asking Jeff Bonser awkward questions about refinancing our debts, the decisions made around ITV Digital, the strategy for the club, ownership of the ground, democracy at the club, and in return getting what I felt were defensive answers. And now I read the notes from the meeting and I want to give him a hug, and to accept that this has taken its toll on him, and to respect his wishes to return to being a normal fan. The notes felt so tired, like we are waiting for an exit strategy to reveal itself out of the mists, such that we are unable to move beyond the structuring realities and legalities of pension regulations and ground ownership and limited/limiting income.

This fatigue is my major worry for the football club, only slightly assuaged by the fact that the Trust have secured the ground as a community asset. The ground looks tired, governance at the club feels tired, our pattern of play is tired, our recruitment has been tired, and booking acts like Roy “Chubby” Brown in the face of movements like #MeToo and Black Lives Matters is tired and demonstrates a complete disconnection with the realities of social justice and inclusion. We feel tired, hopeless, powerless; that is why I describe the season as abject.

Daz F
An unmitigated shambles from the point that last season ended to the moment Dan & Stefan woke Jeff out of his slumber and belatedly fired Jon Whitney. And it was a shambles.

The muddled, disconnected thinking that allowed two centre backs to depart and be replaced with Shaun Donnellan compounded what was a truly awful summer of team rebuilding. After signing two wing backs from Scotland and waffling about defensive styles and philosophies Jon was forced to start the season at Bury with a flat back four. Only one of the foursome having experienced the rigours of League One previously, and even he was relegated from it. The 3rd minute lunge at Gigg Lane that presented Bury with the 12 yard opportunity to open the scoring set a president for the defensive frailties that were to follow.

I guess it should have been of little surprise to anyone but Whitney that we shelved an almost double figure penalty count before the cricket season had finished and that we visibly lacked any semblance of a plan of how we stop or defend crosses. For months, defensive incompetence reigned supreme, consistently undoing anything good we managed in the opponents half, with arguably the most frustrating point being that opponents didn’t have to carve us open, they just had to wait patiently until we self-detonated. We scored too early, conceded too late, were hindered by red cards to our opponents, failed to show application, energy or effort and rarely stuck to Jon’s game-plan, apparently.

And then came Newport. A ninety minute dissertation into why Whitney simply had to go. Lifeless, disorganised, defensively laughable and a distinct lack of application, if Slough was the single most unacceptable 90 minutes of this millennium, I’d suggest that that cold early evening in South Wales wasn’t all that far behind. Every time I think about it my blood boils and I still can’t comprehend how Whitney’s job survived this.

Then came the January transfer window, a month where had you been trying to make the worst job possible for the football club look credible, then you’d have been very close to repeating the business that we actually did. I’m convinced that Jack Fitzwater was a stop gap signing whilst we waited for Krystian Bielik, otherwise we’d have had him instead of Donnellan in August, so even with the one player who made any kind of impact (and it was substantial) we were fortunate.

As for Bielik, I’ll save that for another day.

And whilst Whitney simply had to go, those (or he) who employed him also have to burden their share of the responsibility. I doubt that Whitney got rid of Jimmy O’Connor without the board saying yes. Whitney didn’t appoint Ian Sharps (I know it was a year earlier but the point remains) without board approval, the board let Whitney sign four academy players on transfer deadline day when it was blindingly obvious we were desperate for experience and it was hardly Whitney’s fault that the board didn’t sack him in the many months when it was a matter of when rather than if. Yes, the board should absolutely back their manager but there has to be check points and mechanisms in place to stop this being loyalty becoming blind.

Even the basic protectionary stuff, like controlling the guff he fed the media (pre & post match) either wasn’t there or wasn’t forceful enough. I struggle to believe that the board weren’t sick to the back teeth of reading & hearing the same rubbish week after week, because they’re undoubtedly smart people. So where was the media man, the media training or the media protection to stop him killing his own career? If he didn’t want help, make him have it. It’s pretty evident that Whitney needed protecting from his weaknesses, however if he got any, it wasn’t anywhere near enough.

Which brings me to a key point; if the board collectively couldn’t see what was required then I’m worried about their ability to recognise something quite so fundamentally obvious as this. Similarly, if individuals could see it but failed to convince their paymaster, then I’m worried about the working mechanism of the board. If the main man isn’t listening, or you can’t make a difference on something as basic as this, then why are you there?

The subsequent identification and introduction of Dean Keates in was a smart move. The protests of the month earlier and the cliff edge that early bird season ticket sales were accelerating towards arguably forced their hand but they recognised the need to organise and limit the gifts we were handing out on a match by match basis. The penny had dropped that a team with so few options going forward couldn’t afford to hand out defensive freebies. The board also deserve credit for getting the man they’d identified and doing it so quickly. Jeff’s genuinely admirable rule of not approaching a manager in employment going out of the window as the need to survive trumped our footballing codes.

Since then it’s been two steps forward and not quite two back. We’re much better organised defensively, we have a strategy when out of possession and a coping mechanism when under pressure (2 very tight banks of four, push everything out wide and defend the cross). Each player seems to understand what he’s being asked to do, a classic Graydon trait, and Keates seems to have taken the conceding of a goal to Chis Nicholl levels of personal disappointment.

However with a front line that consistently resembled the emperor’s new clothes I’m not sure how Keates dragged this team over the 50 point drop line but he did.

For those who believed Whitney would’ve done similar – I’m sorry but you’re kidding yourself.

Mark
Poor.

It was a wretched season despite staying up. The football was mostly turgid and once Whitney was gone, the squad he left behind was exposed for what it was – inexperienced, unbalanced and weak. We joked that Mark Gillespie’s second minute penalty save in the opening day defeat at Bury might be the high point; and, up until stoppage time on the penultimate weekend, it was.

Darren
Dreadful. The level of incompetence over the season was truly remarkable. I think we can begin to dissect this incompetence in 3 ways: The club, the management, and the players.

1. The Club
We are now in the post-season haze. The light that burst through following George Dobson’s last minute goal, was the dawn through the shadows and darkness that came before. We must not forget that we were sleepwalking into relegation. The board at our beloved club, had ample cause and time to get rid of Jon Whitney, Sharps and co., yet consistently failed to deliver judgment, for what I can only assume was misplaced loyalty in someone who was clearly out of his depth, and should not have been in the job.

It was quite evident to many the season before the one just gone (see some of our previous blogs from even 2 years ago!) that Jon Whitney should have been relieved of his duties after the embarrassment of losing 4-1 at home to MK Dons on the last game of the season. He should have been sacked after the Rotherham away game in September this season (1-5), sacked after the Newport County atrocity, and sacked after losing to Plymouth on New Year’s day. In all of these situations, it would have been early enough in the season to appoint a proper manager, but also salvage the season for the supporters. What did happen, was a slow waltz towards the bottom 4, before eventually the pressure became too much and Jon was relieved of his duties after the Shrewsbury away embarrassment.

The delay and indecision cost us. The timing of the sacking was also quite strange; so late into the season, meant any incoming manager was already up against it, without the ability to change the squad in January or sufficient time to really implement a strategy.

The club does need to be commended for actually approaching (and paying for) a young manager, and club legend. Yet, the abomination of what came before is not lost on this particular blogger. This season went wrong for many reasons, but the board have to be aware that they were simply not decisive, or good enough this season.

2.  The ‘Management’
Utter shambles. I won’t go on too much here, as I have previously made my feelings known; but the way this club has been managed in footballing terms over the last 2 years has been ridiculous. The squad is completely unbalanced, players are under contract for the forthcoming season that never should be, there was no fight at times, there was no organisation, there was no plan. Jon Whitney was paraded before the clubs fans in January at the ‘Meet the manager’ event, and whilst I have no sympathy for some of the vitriol towards Jon given his oftentimes childish, deluded and belittling comments, I did feel sorry for him. I think there was a good, loyal man there, but the spiral of pressure, fall outs, and results lead to some of the comments that would not sit well with Walsall fans – the ‘Crappy Jobs’ comment being one of the final straws for the Walsall public.

3.  The Players
Some of the players have to be held accountable for this season past. I don’t blame the players as much as the board, and previous manager – but some of the performances have been woeful and devoid of passion or fight. Mark Gillespie is clearly not commanding, Luke Leahy cannot defend, Nicky Devlin is awful (I know that might upset one or two, but he seems a nice lad but without any positive footballing attributes other than drive), Jon Guthrie needs to play with someone commanding, Adam Chambers is too slow, Kieron Morris has gone backwards, Flo was injured, and Bakayoko does not know how to play up front – which is a bit of a worry, given he is a striker.

2. Season Highlight.

Richard
This is a no-brainer – George Dobson’s goal against Northampton. Dobson has grown since he returned, covering more ground with better distribution, being stronger on the ball, and taking more of a lead on the pitch. The goal was one of the great Walsall moments, not just because of the importance of the match and the lateness of the strike. It was a simple goal that required technical excellence, strength and fitness. Dobson’s ball to Baka reminded me of Sawyers; Baka’s movement, strength, hold-up play and pass into Dobson’s feet were excellent; Dobson’s willingness to go box-to-box and his clinical finish were immense. It would be a joy in any season.

Daz F
So it’s a dark and cold Saturday evening and you’re just approaching the M6, off the M5. An illuminated Bescot is in vision but the mood is sombre, given you’ve been dumped out of the FA Cup without a whimper, again.

Then your passenger, who’s been scrolling through his Twitter app, mentions utters the now immortal words “There’s been a dressing room invader, someone’s got into the Walsall dressing room”.
The conversation then goes “that’ll be Asps, you know”
“Nah, Asps has got more sense than that”
“Not sure about that”

History tells us that (i) Asps didn’t have more sense than that and (ii) he didn’t exactly ‘invade’ the aforementioned visiting dressing room, more he blagged his way past a couple of incompetent check points and opened the door. He also didn’t have a rant, calmly informing the management team of what, on the balance of the evening and our recent cup record, needed to be said.

In the aftermath, everyone deserves credit for this incident not getting out of hand and the fact that Whitney was so calm, constructive and professional in the fact of a really difficult situation shouldn’t be lost. I’d be the first to agree that dressing rooms are private areas where supporters and non-playing staff should never go but sometimes frustrations, however inappropriate, need to be demonstrated. They were a disgrace that afternoon.

As an aside I’d also add the last 10 minute supporter walk out against Oxford into the season highlights. Maybe it was only 200 fans, and some of those received a prickly response as they departed, but there was an element of unity amongst some pretty old and long suffering faces. Yes the club played an absolute blinder in snuffing it out this time but the issues haven’t gone away and won’t go away until the major underlying issue at the football club is solved. I sense that only the recognition of the need to stick together in a relegation battle stopped them returning.

Mark
A Monday tea time scroll through social media which revealed the overdue departure of Jon Whitney.

At the time I was really not bothered whether we stayed up or not, or if the club had waited until the summer to appoint a permanent successor; things were only going in one direction with the former physio and the whole atmosphere had become toxic. It was long overdue.

Darren
The highlight of the season for me was off the pitch. The sacking of Jon Whitney was a relief, but the appointment of Dean Keates was and is a breath of fresh air. I don’t understand some of the criticism or lack of belief in Keates. This is a bona fide club legend who will command the respect of the players, and change the way this football club has been ran over the last 2 years.

It will take a year or two to sort out given the amount of players under contract from the Whitney era, but let’s get behind Dean. Keates has already been ruthless in getting rid of some players, and some of the managerial staff, but I do expect more outgoings in the coming month.

I have to mention George Dobson’s goal, but this was amplified by being accompanied by the Titanic Music. Who knew Walsall was by-the-sea?

3. Season Lowlight.

Richard
Not sacking Jon Whitney after Newport in November. Was it really that long ago? I am still gobsmacked, so much so that I have nothing else to say; except what does this say about governance and strategy at the club?

Daz F
Newport is the obvious one and I’d offer Scunthorpe as a wildcard, because to fight that hard and come back with nothing was a killer blow. But I’ll go for the second half at home to Wimbledon. Easing away from the relegation scrap at 2-0 up against a team that looked so inept they could’ve been managed by a physiotherapist, there was truly only one winner as we coasted to first half stoppage time. Even the half time interval appeared to arrive at the perfect moment for Dean Keates, giving him 15 calming minutes to drill into his team the importance of keeping things tight and giving nothing away.

But they either didn’t listen or didn’t want to.

Nicky Devlin’s unfortunate lunge provided the platform for the 42 minute assault that followed. Keates made his changes way too late, partially understandably given he still didn’t know his players, and then just at the moment where it looked like we’d nicked a point from the jaws of three the referee played his joker.

Quite how he could give the 2nd penalty is anyone’s guess, even from 100 yards away it was pretty clear it was a striker backing in rather than defender coming over the top, but the speed in which he gave it (he simply couldn’t wait) gave him zero thinking time. Given the huge importance of the decision he was making he simply had to be sure but in real time and replay it was obvious he was wrong.

I’ll be honest. I didn’t think we’d recover from that blow and began the process of mentally preparing myself for relegation.

Mark
The period immediately after the Newport debacle.

In years to come I really hope we will remember Jon Whitney for his dedication to the club, his years of service and the fact that, unlike others, he was prepared to take on the responsibility of trying to get us over the line in 2015/16; and he did turn down the Dingles once too. Without the benefit of hindsight, there was a logic to giving him the job permanently.

Just not with a 3-year contract.

‘However at some point there will be serious questions about Jon Whitney’s management …’ were the exact words I wrote in the NNP end of season review last year (and they were written before the Cov/Vale/mk triumvirate of misery that closed out 2016/17).

This was followed by what would have already have been an astonishingly poor summer in terms of recruitment, made worse by the mystifying departures and treatment of Osbourne, Preston (just as an aside how come, out of contract or not, we didn’t get any money for him when he came through our system?) and especially James O’Connor. Yet the Board stubbornly stuck by their man.

Then came Newport.

The not entirely unexpected embarrassment of a knockout cup exit occurred two weeks before the next league game. With six months and, crucially, one Transfer Window to go, it could and should have been the much needed ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ card for those in charge to make the decision that could have turned the season around – ‘Sorry Jon, but we’re in a results business blah blah. If it was up to us etc etc.’ But they didn’t take the option, with predictable results.

Darren
I was unfortunate enough to go to the 5-1 reverse at Rotherham back in September. That was the worst performance I had seen with my own eyes since ‘Taundrygate’ at Coventry a few season ago. We were absolutely atrocious.

4. Player of the Season

Richard
I understand why Joe Edwards got player of the season – a year ago I would never have imagined talking about how much we would miss him. It is telling that although he is out injured until November, Keates has offered him a new deal. However, my player of the season is Erhun Oztumer. I know that some argue he may have gone missing towards the end of the season, but without his goals and assists we would have gone down with Bury. I would give honourable mentions to Liam Roberts once he broke through, Joe Edwards until he got injured, and Tyler Roberts until he left.

Daz F
I can’t vote for Joe Edwards. Nothing against the guy, not least because he has done incredibly well for us this year and since he’s been injured we’ve missed him more than I’d ever have believed. But I can’t get past the fact that he’d have struggled to make the bench of the team of two years earlier, which is a measure of quite how far we’ve fallen.

So for me it has to be Erhun Oztumer. Yes, he checked out weeks ago and teams have inevitably woken up to the importance of starving ball to him but had he not made & created so many goals we’d have been snookers behind Bury long before the board belatedly smelt the coffee and jettisoned Whitney.

And whilst the ‘Sawyers / Oztumer, who is best?’ argument is essentially pointless I’d suggest that whilst Sawyers absolutely trumps Oztumer in quality and vision, given the one-man attack we’ve been faced with across all of Erhun Oztumer’s time here the Turkish Messi was significantly more equipped to twice dragging us over the line virtually single handed.

His departure at the end of his deal seemed almost inevitable from the moment he debuted – fail and we’d have dumped him, succeed and he was never going to re-sign. Indeed I sense that he’s one of the new wave of Bosman empowered footballers who identify football clubs as two or three-year career stepping stones. Step up, do a job then move on, hopefully upwards (Romaine, Etheridge & Forde were exactly the same), football is a mercenary career these days and that’s genuinely not a criticism.

I doubt Oztumer will ever look back with the affection that others from generations before do or hold us in anywhere near the level of esteem that we hold him, but that’s OK. Times have changed and Adam Chambers is the exception rather than the rule these days.

Maverick, magician, mercenary, maestro. We’re going to really miss him. Player of the Season.

Mark
Erhun Oztumer

For me there’s no question, he was the stand out player, hitting double figures in a struggling side from midfield again. Creative, clever and innovative, he made the League One Team of the Year (meaning we had more of our own players in that team than one of the automatic promotion contenders, which did make me loff).

It’s a sad state of affairs that a player of his class didn’t get the Player of the Season vote in either of his seasons with us.

Some say he wasn’t trying after January, I would counter that we had become so one dimensional by then that we expected miracles of the guy. And with the way the season was going, there’s a good argument to say we should’ve cashed in rather than let him walk away for nothing.

He fully played his part in those final few games and it was his headed goal that got the point that finally saw us collapse over the finish line. Little Oz was a joy to watch and he will be missed.

Darren
Joe Edwards was brilliant this season, but the player of the season was surely Erhun Oztumer. Without his goals, class, and vision we would surely be now looking at playing in League two next year. This is a player who scored so many goals these past 2 seasons, despite playing in a team managed by Jon Whitney, and despite playing alongside Bakayoko, Shaibu, N’Goy, etc.

5. Performance of the Season

Richard
There is so little to choose from here, so it has to be the Tyler Roberts-inspired second-half comeback in the home game against Bradford City. There’s nothing quite like opening-up the possibility for a chant of “you’re not singing anymore”. I love that chant.

Daz F
The Emperor’s New Clothes of a category. Collectively, the point we fought tooth and nail for at Oldham. They knew that they couldn’t afford to lose and in the face of a hostile wind and a home team that threw the kitchen sink at them they stood firm(ish), tackled anything that moved, threw bodies in the way of anything spherical and Liam Roberts kept everything else out. Keates had them organised, they had a plan without the ball and coping mechanisms when under pressure. They were also playing for their manager which was nice to see after going 20 months without it. The support at Boundary Park was equally magnificent. Team & fans re-united.

Individually, I’m sorely tempted to go for George Dobson against Northampton Town and one of the truly great Banks’s moments but I’m going back to late September and our first away day maximum in months.

Tyler Roberts looked like the genuine article for the majority of his time at Walsall and it wasn’t hard to understand why his stay here was short. He wasn’t a step above the majority of his team mates, more of a staircase ahead. Indeed seeing Amadou Bakayoko struggle to fill the role that Roberts executed so well in the first half of the season is hard to watch. That isn’t a criticism of Baka, because I think he’s sacrificed himself doing the job as well as can be expected but Roberts was a class above.

Even before Oxford he’d established his quality and importance to the side but that afternoon at the Kassam was his coming of age. He led the line magnificently, bought team mates into the game and the cushioned finish that doubled our lead was a beautiful combination of movement, pace, composure and accuracy. It was probably the best finish I’ve ever seen from an 18 year old footballer in a Walsall shirt. Showing his opponent the far post run before angling back inside, Roberts bought himself the half yard needed to allow the threaded Oztumer pass into his channel, then didn’t hit it too hard, finding the only square of net it looked possible to hit. Show me a better finish in League One this season, I’ll wait!

Frustratingly he was always too good for us and his January departure looked inevitable for weeks in advance. That Albion let him go really shocked me and I suspect that they may regret this is years to come.

Mark
It can only really be Northampton at home. Dean Keates had managed to squeeze enough from the squad to give us some semblance of shape and organisation, the club had done the right thing to encourage a great turnout and the atmosphere was cranked up to 11.

Liam Roberts, my vote for Young Player of the Season and the one player who has undoubtedly kicked on in the last 12 months, set the tone with a superb save onto the post in the second minute. We dug in, rode our luck at times and them memorably George Dobson, another of the few bright sparks of the season, got on the end of a sweeping counter-attack with that super sweet strike. Then it was utter pandemonium and you remembered why you love football so much.

And it is nothing other than my undying love for the Saddlers that could ever make me want to listen to Celine Dion over and over again.

Darren
If the season was the Pacific Ocean, then the islands of success within that would be an Island Archipelago such as the tiny Marshall Islands. We were rubbish for most of the season, but my particular performance of the season is going to be Oxford away. We were actually very good that day. Zeli Ismail destroyed their left back, Joe Edwards and Ozzie ran the show in the midfield, and Tyler Roberts showed the potential class he most certainly possesses.

6. Expectations for 2018/19

Richard
The appointment of Keates and Davies gives us some stability in terms of coaching and potentially recruitment. Both seem to have shared/common understanding and a sound working relationship. Equally, they appear to have an understanding of team structure, especially in terms of defence, and the ability to motivate. One concern, amplified by the fact that Keates is willing to listen to bids for contracted players, is the potentially limited scope he has for renewing the squad. We are likely to have to replace Oztumer, and there are issues of creativity. We have been unable to get the best out of players like Morris and Kinsella, and one would hope that Keates is able to rectify this. Yet we have a history of weak recruitment and poor use of loan signings, and this needs to be addressed on a limited budget, and with limited capacity given the number of contracted players.

The ongoing limitations imposed by the turnover of Walsall FC Ltd will also impact our ability to progress. I fully expect Keates to stabilise us on the pitch, but given how tired the Club as a whole feels, I wonder how far he will be able to take us.

In terms of the team, I expect that we will be better organised and more difficult to beat. However, I wonder, given the reports coming out of Wrexham and what we have seen during his limited time as manager, whether life under Keates will focus on the functional. I adore tiki-taka, but I think those days are long gone. There is the possibility that we might be able to impose a more fluid style, where 4-3-3 is able to morph into a midfield diamond or 4-4-1-1, depending upon circumstance. There was a little bit of this in evidence at Fleetwood, with Dobson anchoring the diamond. Here, there is potential for a Dobson-Edwards midfield to enable progression and stability.

I am also hoping that Keates’ talk about recruiting and enabling leadership (which was eviscerated under Whitney, and that makes me wonder whether he felt threatened by leaders) means that the team will be able to self-manage on the pitch – this was one of the traits of the Smith/O’Kelly team. Finally, I am hoping that Keates is able to continue the progress of young players like Kory Roberts, to enable Kinsella and Morris to perform, and to create an environment in which players like Bakayoko can flourish.

Daz F
I honestly don’t see the top half as a realistic expectation. Keates has a massive amount of work ahead of him and most of the players he needs to move on are contracted for another 12 months. The rise of Liam Roberts nudges one of the most difficult issues away from Dean’s door and onto Mark Gillespie and his agent. Realistically there’s only one starter in August and despite being contracted I sense Gillespie, at this stage in his career, wont fancy a full 12 month stint of bench warming.

The other positive is that the end of Jackson & Oztumer’s deals will surely free up a few quid for what is a vital summer of transfer dealing.

Those Keates can’t move on will need to be improved, something that simply didn’t happen during the Whitney era. In Kieron Morris & Nicky Devlin I see two players with the potential to play many games for Walsall, Devlin is arguably future captain material, but Keates needs to work and develop them. Morris, the ultimate confidence player, probably suffered more than any other in the Whitney era and Devlin is a player that Dean Smith would have polished & polished & polished into an absolute gem. If Keates can do similar to Smith the future will be bright. If he can’t and they players he doesn’t want stick around it’ll be another long, hard winter.

We also need to cut our dependency on loans. Every ounce of work that went into Donnellan, Shaibu, Ngoy and even Tyler Roberts did nothing to benefit us beyond eight or ten games. They take that development back to parent clubs or onto their next loan move. Right now we have enough work to do on our own squad to worry about improving someone else’s.

In answer to the original question, right now, I think that avoiding relegation and improving a few players will represent a decent season because the road back is a bloody long one.

Mark
Just that it will be better.

That’s because it is already better. We might have only just about stopped up, but there was a togetherness and purpose to our play under Dean Keates that was completely absent under the previous regime.

Dean has already started his clear out of players and backroom staff. You suspect he knows that there’s still more deadwood but he’s going to make the best of it. But you also suspect he knows what he wants and you get the feeling there is actually a workable plan in place.

How far it will take us remains to be seen but at least we might be able to look forward to the First Round of the FA Cup once again.

Darren
Progression through stability. The appointment of Dean Keates and Andy Davies gives us the basis to move on from the Whitney era, but there are a few things we need to solve first before we can truly ‘move on’. Like a very attractive ex-girlfriend who may have recently started up a lingerie line, it might take a year or two to purge ourselves of the Whitney debacle. That being said, I expect us to stabilise next season, and lodge ourselves nicely in mid-table.

As alluded to previously, Dean has got his work cut out moving on some of the players still under contract (and who on earth would want them?). I wouldn’t be surprised if players like Bakayoko, Gillespie, Leahy, Devlin are moved on. I don’t buy for one moment that Keates rates Bakayoko, for example, it seems more a case of exercising his 12 month extension in order to get more money from any potential inquirers…

Adam Chambers should not be under contract this year – we all know Adam has been a club stalwart, but his form and condition have deteriorated massively this past 12 months. Time to become a squad player. I want to see a younger head next to Dobson in there. We need to move on.

Given the present state of the squad, and supposed free transfers out – I would imagine a very busy summer. I think we will look at playing 442 next year, so we may need (at least), a backup goalkeeper, two centre halves, a left back, three wingers, two central midfielders, three strikers. That is 12 players. That’s if we get rid of the deadwood etc., but will Supreme Leader Bonser invest so much?

7. AOB

Richard
I have two.
First, Roy “Chubby” Brown. I’m embarrassed, but not surprised (and that is both telling and depressing) that the club felt it appropriate to book him. I tweeted earlier in the season that we felt like a working man’s club stranded off a ring road and stuck in the 1970s. This booking made that concrete for me.

Second, fans booing players or claiming that they don’t try/care. I cannot see the point of the first action and I simply don’t buy the assertion. I think we need to find a better way.

Daz F
I’m not going to make many friends here but Daniel Mole & Twitter.

Historically, this blog proves that I’m more than happy to criticise the work that the club does, or doesn’t do. I also do it on twitter, but (hopefully) I do it in a constructive manner.

Dan’s twitter account in the only 24/7 link into the club and I believe he’s gone out of his was to keep this channel open and informative. It’s also the first stop in the club’s significantly improved customer service operation, something that Dan doesn’t get anywhere near enough credit for changing.

Yes, there are things at the club that are still desperately poor and his job requirements & responsibilities to his employer, whilst completely understandable, must make things extremely difficult at times but at the end of the day he’s a family man trying to make the best out of a near impossible job. Given I’ve never had a conversation with him I can’t comment on what he’s like but my senses suggest he’s a decent guy trying to do his best for the club as a whole, rather than blindly serving his employer.

I think it’s brilliant that we have the opportunity to comment constructively and engage directly but can we cut out the awful abuse that the guy gets when things go wrong. It isn’t nice and I’d like to think that it’s not the Walsall way. We’re better than that.

Mark
You hear a lot about managing expectations these days. I think it’s about time we started managing our expectations, but in an upward direction.

Walsall FC are not punching above our weight by surviving in the third tier of English football. Look at the record books, if anything it is our default setting. The fact that our budget is often described as ‘bottom four’ is a reflection on the way the club has been run over the past three decades and is a matter for those in charge not us fans.

One of the most frustrating aspects of this season was what might have been – wins over Oxford, Doncaster (yet again) and Fleetwood highlighted how mediocre even the mid-table clubs were. And then you compare the standard of teams we faced in the Play-Offs a mere two years ago with the bang average ordinariness in there now – you couldn’t fashion a decent team from Shrewsbury and Scunthorpe combined (and I’m really not actually knocking them, they’ve both deserve respect for getting the results and the points on the board across 46 games but you’d be hard pushed to say quality is a strong point for either team). If they can be there then so can we.

The turnout for the Northampton battle showed the support and the affection for the club is there. The club got it spot on with the ticket offer, not necessarily in the price structure – I think tickets for a tenner or 2-for-1 would have been equally as effective – but in recognising the mossive importance of the game and the part the fans had to play.

We lost our way for a couple of years but there’s now an opportunity for the club to reconnect and show a bit more ambition. It would be good if we didn’t pass it by this time.

Darren
Roy ‘Chubby’ Brown? Really? Who came up with that plan? Sack them.

Bring back white home shirts, red shorts, and green socks.

 

Jon Whitney – Effort, Energy & Dedication.

So blessedly, for the ever increasing number of doubters, Jon Whitney’s managerial reign at Walsall is over. Two years, almost to the day, in which we shared hope, excitement, crushing disappointment and annoyance in pretty equal measures. A reign that I suspect will, when the dust settles, be remembered as a period of frustration, missed opportunities and defensive frailties.

The passing of time may also provide a more balanced reflection on what was a stellar decade and a half of loyal service to the football club rather than his entire period of service being overshadowed by a final assignment that proved a step too far.

It’s no secret which side of the managerial in or out fence I’ve sat for the best part of 12 months or how frustrated I’ve been with the problems that have accumulated around his methods. It is also no secret that the job that Jon has just lost is just about as tough as it gets and would be a monumental challenge for any rookie manager. I think it’s important that we calibrate our expectations of our managers against such a challenging backdrop.

To Jon’s great credit, it’s important to record the fact that his team has never really flirted with the relegation places or gone on those long runs without a win that occasionally threatened to drain all belief in where Dean Smith was attempting to take us. He also delivered a first full season ending league position that unquestionably exceeded both his budgetary expectations and, being frank, that squad’s ability and irrespective of our own thoughts & ambitions he would have finished comfortably above his spending capabilities this time around.

Yes the football was desperate, often really desperate, but so is the budget that our managers are required to compete with and I guess where you stand on Jon Whitney, the manager, depends very much on your expectations of the football club;

  • Is simply avoiding relegation enough?
  • Do we have a right to expect more?
  • Is this division as desperately weak as a fair few of us suspect?
  • Is league position the defining measurement of success or failure?

Importantly I should also give an appreciative nod to those first few months where he steadied a ship drifting dangerously close to the rocks and came within a goal of not requiring inevitable the play off disappointment that followed. I accept that they were a fine team smartly assembled by Smith, but this is no guarantee of result continuity, as those few weeks under the over cautious Sean O’Driscoll proved.

Yes, the Barnsley games were crushingly painful and both performances were tactically flawed but player heads were gone by then, defensive fragilities were busted and the desire to re-climb the mountain after going so close on the final day was brutally absent. Automatic was within our grasp, but come play off week we were miles away.

The benefit of hindsight also suggests that the warning signs that arguably should’ve precluded that eye opening 3 year contract were already evident. The defending at Bradford and subsequent public flogging of his players was neither impressive or  smart. Similarly, Reece Flanagan’s start from nowhere in a midfield three at Sheffield United was a genuine head-scratching selection & formation and Tom Bradshaw’s withdrawal when we were 3 goals down at Oakwell looked a simple tactical gaffe in the moment, however subsequent issues persuade me to consider otherwise.

He also got a dominant & frankly brilliant win that few expected to get at Gillingham, the sort of result that set the trend for what followed throughout his time as manager.

At this point I guess I should hold my hand up and say that I thought appointing Whitney, both on the interim basis and in a permanent capacity were the right decisions at that time. I know I winced at the 3 year deal and recall questioning the wisdom of that offer to a first time manager but I guess that Jeff was desperate for a bit of stability around the place after the player and staff exodus of the previous six months. Jon also had the significant advantage of the support of our fan base behind him across that period, that unity demonstrated in that first post Smith game at Shrewsbury was memorably remarkable and this pretty much repeated itself right up to (and including) the ruthless deconstruction of Port Vale in game 46. The club and fan base was tighter than it had been for years and this must also have assisted the shaping of a deal where contract length was clearly in his favour.

What could possibly go wrong?

Erm, where do you start?

The player exodus that followed his appointment essentially set the tone for the 20 months that have followed and the woeful frittering away of a disappointingly low Tom Bradshaw transfer fee funded kitty meant we went from deadly to dead wood to disappointing across subsequent transfer windows. From the instinctive and proven panache of SuperTom to a kid we’ve scouted in an academy game on livestream, downscaling on a frightening scale across four transfer windows – a fact that the hierarchy of the club should be more than embarrassed to have overseen.

Transfers generally were also poor, with the abandonment of Smith’s (working) recruitment policy only adding to the frustration. Baxendale, Etheridge, Brandy, Downing, Mantom & Sawyers were all young, discarded but improvable footballers and whatever work we put in, whatever development we generated, it was our benefit to harvest. Make them better for us, not their parent clubs. Smith’s recruiting plan topped up with loans, rather than building entire teams around them.

Granted, Whitney uncovered a number of real gems in his time here with Oztumer, McCarthy, Pennington and Tyler Roberts notably coming to the forefront but for every ace there have been a plethora of dross. Kevin Toner, Shaun Donnellan, Will Randall, and Theo Vassell instantly spring to mind as woefully inadequate signings. Similarly, both Simeon Jackson’s penchant for offside flags and the disturbingly out of his depth Andreas Makris made Ashley Grimes look like Thierry Henry. Both acquisitions taking up significant chunks of the Bradshaw transfer kitty.

However, nothing sums our post-Smith transfer dealings better than the Krystian Bielik fiasco. Signed six weeks ago, still injured and already talking to the press about signing for someone else next season. It’s the kind of disarray that you just couldn’t make up.

The lack of a chief scout can’t have helped however and I think it’s widely accepted that you’ll never see the complete picture of a player from YouTube and live streams. This can lead the kind of expensive mistakes that Makris proved or you end up signing players who’re not even as good as the ones you already have. I’m equally unsure as to how such loan spells benefit the player, or the parent club.

And then there were the relationships with senior professionals. Smoke and fire are rarely unrelated and whilst the initial summer exodus didn’t produce anything more substantial than rumour or gossip, I think that many fans suspect that one or two didn’t move sideways or backwards for money, an extra year or playing styles.

Last season bought further bust-up gossip & rumour but until the issues with Isaiah Osbourne were made public there was no concrete evidence of any manager & player relationship issues.

Then came James O’Connorgate

From the outside, Whitney’s handling of the Jimmy O’Connor saga looked on the clumsy side of ghastly. With Isaiah Osbourne having already detailed the reasons he wanted nothing more to do with us and the obvious, albeit undocumented, similarities in the Scott Laird situation Whitney surely would have been better served in finding a solution that didn’t include pushing his most accomplished and experienced defender off the edge of a metaphoric cliff. The quote that followed about defending in different style, a more physical presence, has haunted him all season long.

None of the aforementioned trio have been adequately replaced, their experience and proven quality superseded by inferior talent that seem to run a lot without questioning methods or systems. The old adage of sweat drenched shirts being more valued than quality of play is rarely more apparent.

However the self-inflicted loss of O’Connor undisputedly damaged Whitney the most. Indeed the sight of Adam Chambers having to drop into a back three (again) on Saturday, simply because we had no-one else, perfectly encapsulated the carnage that the jettisoning of JOC had caused and certainly wouldn’t have been lost in his employer on Saturday afternoon.

Make no mistake, this was a considerable yet avoidable error and Whitney’s Walsall managerial career never truly recovered from it.

The identification and subsequent hiring of inexperienced coaching staff was a inexplicably similar misjudgement. When Dean Holden departed there was a clear opportunity to add some much needed experience to Whitney’s coaching team. To recruit a beacon who could be leaned upon, learned from and (arguably more importantly) to strengthen the first team bench with an experienced head and knowledgable pair of eyes. And whilst I have no knowledge of Ian Sharps and have absolutely no desire or intention to question his suitability for the role of assistant, whoever on the board accepted this proposal failed their manager dismally. It was blindingly obvious that the one thing Whitney didn’t need was a guy alongside him also learning on the job and to this day I’m still astonished that the club sanctioned it.

Just to put this in context, I’d suggest you’d seriously struggle to get a bar job or chef role in the Bonser suite without any previous experience, yet the board appointed a manager and subsequently his assistant without the same credentials. It is an absolute nonsense, someone simply had to say no.

Cup exits also did significant damage and whilst the shambles at Newport will probably be the one that most will always remember, last season’s exit at home to Macclesfield was at equally as bad. Going out quite so limply to a non-league team with no away record to boast about verged on the unforgivable. Indeed, in every knockout game Whitney managed us in, and you can add the play off semi in this, only Sheffield United were higher placed than Walsall. For a club so dependent on the cash generated by ‘windfall’ games, Whitney’s cup record was dreadful.

However, amid all of the above I think the most damaging issue is the probability that fully two years into his role I don’t think that he, or anyone else, is convinced that he knows his best system or best XI. A manager who isn’t absolutely sure of this is always going to be in big trouble.

Unfortunately, the basic fact is that football managers are in a result based business and Whitney’s Walsall didn’t get enough decent results. Seriously impressive wins, such as those at Sheffield United last year and Southend this were diluted by shockers like those at Rotherham and Rochdale. Likewise we turned too many wins into draws and draws into defeats because of awful defending and a lack of organisation. A great win at Blackpool frittered away because we’ve fallen asleep whilst they’re bombing forward with nothing to lose. And there were too many afternoons like this, too many goals conceded like this and not enough learning from these mistakes.

Arguably Whitney’s greatest professional traits were what eventually undid him as our manager. His relentless positivity, absolute self belief and the energetic, almost blinkered desire to succeed might have been good public traits to have as a physio and fitness coach but they become particularly tiresome when they stop you seeing the blindingly obvious. Endless radio interviews repeating the same things had long stopped being an opportunity to analyse and understand what just happened or how we would improve and became just another stick to beat him with.

The defeat at Shrewsbury last weekend, as an example, had nothing to do with over-respecting the opponent or not delivering the game plan – we lost at Shrewsbury because we’re hopeless defensively. Similarly, the legions of goals conceded from crosses might well include individual errors but our basic inability to stop the cross or challenge the headers is the greater issue. Root cause analysis and the identification of areas in need of improvement lost in the mundane repetition of cliché and nonsense.

I recently downloaded and listened multiple times to the last 71 Whitney interviews (it’s a long story) searching for some key words. They’re all between 3 & 5 minutes long so there’s a lot of ground covered, yet not once in all of these interviews does he use the word organisation. He uses the word organise once but this was in the context of daily activities rather than team systems. 71 post match interviews and not one reference to organisation. That’s frightening.

The amount of head scratching references to tired legs, scoring too early or red cards that helped the opponent is incredible however and this is something that the board must also take their share of the blame in. They knew, as Dan Mole admitted at last summer’s focus group meeting, that Whitney has a tendency to run away with himself and say things that caused himself damage. They admitted to discussing this issue with him but things only got worse this season. He clearly needed protection from his enthusiasm & clichés but he either never got it or it didn’t work.

Indeed the only time the club appeared to pull him up was the ‘budget’s all gone’ quote that in turn put them under the microscope. It stank of you’re OK making yourself look inept Jon, just don’t put the heat on us/me.

Energy, effort and application are great mantras but they’re effectively hopeless without organisation, defensive nous and a transfer recruitment policy that looks beyond the shortest of short term thinking. Jon either couldn’t see this or couldn’t deliver these and in the end it’s cost him the job I suspect that he truly loved.

Common consent in the aftermath of Monday’s announcement suggests a real desire that time will heal what are currently pretty deep wounds and Jon’s whole period of service here will get the respect it rightly deserves.

Certainly the rise of Social Media didn’t help Jon’s cause, indeed it unquestionably exaggerated entrenched views and fanned the flames that eventually engulfed Whitney but this is the reality of today’s world. What isn’t acceptable is the stuff that crosses the line and gets nasty. Jon wasn’t a very good football manager but that doesn’t make him a, well you know. It’s also a myth to suggest he didn’t care because it was abundantly clear that he did.

There is no disgrace in getting fired from the Walsall job. Even the great Ray Graydon wasn’t spared the Bonser bullet and better & worse Walsall managers will arrive and depart in similar circumstances. Some, like Alan Buckley go on to prove this football club wrong. I suspect that the vast majority of fans hope that Jon goes on and does similar.

The decision to replace Whitney doesn’t alter the landscape however. His successor will still be employed by a small business that also runs a football club and the risk averse budgetary and player contract length constraints will still be there. He will also inherit a significantly weaker first team than Whitney got and faces losing his one outstanding talent before he’s even got his name above his car parking space. He still has to operate under the same restraints that protect investments and complicate sporting progress and if he does locate a couple of rough diamonds and polishes them to sparkle, he’ll be lucky to get half of the profits that his skills generated.

He’ll also lose his job when fingers stop pointing at him and start to question those who make his job so challenging. And we should never lose sight of this. It is, without doubt, the hardest job in League 1 and always will be whilst we’re in it and the current regime remains in situ.

Thanks Jon, I think everyone recognises your efforts, your desire to succeed and the 15 years of service you gave. Effort, energy and determination were never going to be enough to make a manager successful however, irrespective of how much you wanted them to and we both move on.

The King is dead, long live the King.

 

 

Identity Crisis

I accept that some of the following is contradictory. I make no apologies for this. If anything I sense it helps demonstrate self confusion & ennui.

identity crisis

 noun         PSYCHIATRY

a period of uncertainty and confusion in which a person’s sense of identity becomes insecure, typically due to a change in their expected aims or role in society.

The Upton Park Academy, Liverpool’s Red Machine, The Crazy Gang, even Dirty Leeds. Some, like those mentioned here might be more publicly obvious than others, but every football club has their own identity. Even Milton Keynes, the most dislikable of all football clubs, have their shamelessly franchised identity – albeit one I’d rather chop both my legs off than join their contemptible revelry in.

And then there is us. The ultimate 3rd level football club. A rather homely bungalow located in an area of high rise neighbours, always looking for that next step forward but never quite bridging the gap. Over the years I think we’ve also enjoyed a reputation for developing our own players, playing the game in the right manner and being financially responsible. We also used to be just about the last lower league team you’d want to draw in any cup competition, liking nothing more than the opportunity to blood the nose of any team who’d get ahead of themselves. Cinderella in steel toe caps and a butcher’s apron, if you like.

But it’s the 3rd level stats that probably define us more than anything. Most games in the 3rd tier, more points at this level than any other, most draws, most defeats and most home wins. The recent victory against Oxford pulled us level with Bournemouth for most wins, so that will also become ours soon. A Football Club is, more often than not, defined by its history & aspirations and ours is pretty obvious.

Which has recently left me wondering why a club that is such an integral part of English football’s 3rd tier suddenly finds it quite so financially challenging to compete at this level.

Indeed, whilst spending power is important, it never used to be the primary solution to being competitive in this division – as both the Graydon miracle and (conversely) Sheffield United’s five years of comedic failure prior to getting it right last year proved. Money always provided greater opportunity but long term success was built from the foundations.

Similarly, Dean Smith’s now famous blueprint looked destined to deliver what our budgetary impotence couldn’t. Passing football built around a conveyor of young, hungry and (most importantly) improvable footballers. It wasn’t perfect; the exit door was constantly ajar to the more productive and most improved. Similarly, those long runs without winning tested (and broke) the patience levels of some, but there was a visible methodology, a clear path of travel. Something told me we were into something good.

Good coaching that consistently improved our own players, a club wide set of playing principles, a recruitment philosophy based around signing players who could (and would) be improved, providing youth with a platform to be the best they could be. The five year plan that the entire club bought into came within a whisker of defying financial gravity and almost got us up. That identity as an ambitious passing side that developed youth and improved players who’d got lost elsewhere has arguably never shone brighter.

A smidgen over 24 months later and the team Smith left behind is disturbingly unrecognisable, with the “possible” section of Smith’s brutally cutting leaving statement looking a million miles away. Forget the Premier League being a possibility, right now we’re as far from the Championship and Smith’s blueprint as I think I can ever remember. Our sporting challenge marooned amid a fog of six month player loans, bridal fairs, and landfill motown gigs.

Which brings us beautifully to WFC The Venue. Birmingham-Walsall.

I honestly can’t think of anything that screams identity crisis more than this. Because when a football club, particularly one with its roots quite so directly fixed on its doorstep, doesn’t have the courage or belief in the name of the town it represents, its ultimate brand, I begin to wonder what it does have faith in.

To be absolutely fair, I can see that Birmingham-Walsall works for Next & Ikea, multi-national commercial giants with no links to the town. It’s also used by the Village Hotel & Holiday Inn Express at J10, despite being a £30 taxi ride away from the city named in their branding, so it’s clear that we’re following a commercial pattern here, rather than selling our home town short in isolation. However, in all the other examples, none of the aforementioned businesses has their identity linked to, or an affinity with, the town of Walsall.

They’re shopping outlets and bedrooms branded in garish corporate colours with an ultimate responsibility to their shareholders & banks, utilising zero hour contracts and cheap floor space to maximise global revenues. And before we criticise, if they don’t then someone else will. But be assured, the moment they’re no longer profiting from their square footage in Walsall they’ll be off, evacuating those cut price, out of town premises faster than a rat disappearing up the proverbial drainpipe. They’re not the same as a football club, they don’t have to be.

Unless you’re MK Dons, for obvious reasons, then a football club operates by a different set of principles to that. Their town gives them a name, a character and a personality, blending with geography and history to form each club’s individual identity. The lower leagues are awash with clubs and towns that symmetrically reflect one another – with nothing saying Portsmouth, Barnsley, Mansfield or Colchester clearer than their respective football clubs. Indeed, I challenge you to tell me something that’s more Burnley than a 2/3rds full Turf Moor baying for opposition blood. And you can be fully assured that hell would freeze over before the Turf Moor faithful ever accepted a BFC The Venue : ManchesterBurnley. No, Nay, Never, as the song goes.

Which prompts the question, why compromise your identity and alienate chunks of your fan base in search of an extra sale or two from the geographically gullible? The old song we retort with never challenges the assumption that we are shit, rejecting the notion that we came from Birmingham was always considered the priority. We sing “We don’t come from Birmingham” for a pretty good reason – because we fucking don’t.

And if the club doesn’t understand this or chooses to overlook it then we’re probably even further from understanding and re-finding our identity that even I fear we are.

#MyClubMyTown? #BirminghamWalsall? #NoThanks

From where I’m looking and what I conclude, the stalling of progression in positive sporting direction probably suits the business at the moment. For all of Jeff Bonser’s faults, and I suspect that even his believers will accept there might be a couple, the only time this club has haemorrhaged money in his near quarter century of responsible trading and rent collecting is that early 2000’s spell in what is now the Championship. Like it or not, his record of keeping a controlled rein on the finances of the business is watertight and it rightly defines his time here.

Granted that ITV Digital collapse a decade ago clearly affected our/his financial plans and business model at that time but one look at the financial imbalance of the division right now and the hundreds of millions being collectively lost by the Championship 24 today (£361m in 2015/16 & estimated to be in excess of £400m last season) and I think that if the club fronted up and said the Championship is off their immediate radar then they’d be able to make a listenable case. We might not like what’s being said, indeed its a horrific thought, but the truth will hurt occasionally.

The excellent Price of Football blog produces some remarkable data on football finances and their excellent coverage of The Championship (and clubs similar to us) makes particularly grim reading. A recent article on Millwall demonstrates the real difficulty that one of our traditional third tier companions has experienced in balancing sporting competitively and financial stability both at League 1 level and in aiming for a position higher than 22nd in the league above.

The blog suggests that the previous five years, where 19th in the Championship was Millwall’s highest finishing position, generated total losses (before player sales) of £35.4m. Debts are estimated at £18m and weekly losses at present are a smidgen over £100000.

Below is a direct quote from the blog, which should offer a flavour of the deep financial commitment of Millwall’s generous owner John Berylson

“Berylson’s investment increased further in 2016/17 as he invested a further £3 million in the club via a new share issue. This takes his total investment to just over £56 million, in the form of shares and loans.

Realistically, Berylson will have to subsidise the club by a minimum of £5 million a year for the foreseeable future, unless promotion to the Premier League is achieved.”

That, I’m sure you’ll agree, is a pretty substantial commitment.

Over at Bristol City, another regular lower league opponent, the tale is similar, only more expensive. Bankrolled by Steve Lansdown to the tune of £118m and a with wage bill of £20.9m (ours is around £3.4m) City – before player sales – run at a loss of £370k per week. The past two seasons in the Championship produced finishing positions of 18th & 17th and left them with combined losses of £33.6m. With a wage/income ratio at Ashton Gate running at 99% (meaning £99 in every £100 received is spent on wages) it doesn’t take long to see why the sustainable focussed Bonser would baulk at a similar regime on his own doorstep, irrespective of if he actually had the resources to fund a similar methodology.

Brighton, another long-term lower league comrade, and one who are no strangers to rattling buckets, ran a £1/2m weekly deficit in the final years chasing their recently found Premier League riches. As with Bournemouth, again no strangers to either League 1 or bucket rattling, their promotion wasn’t quite the all-consuming fairy tale the media like to portray, more a percentage based conclusion to outspending your rivals.

All of the above point to the conclusion that the financing of football has moved on and the days of Wheldon and Bonser running sustainable businesses appear incompatible with sporting competitively today, even at League 1 levels. It seems evident that Dean Smith saw this and whilst his exit was clumsy, selfish and particularly poorly timed his summation that it was a “no brainer” has proven itself to be pretty much spot on. Like I said, the truth hurts sometimes.

So who are we? And what are we? Publicly the club appears to maintain that establishing itself in Championship is its absolute goal, a boast that is significantly easier to make than it is to convince as credible. Simply looking at the numbers – both ours and others, the (unsustainable) stretch that similar clubs have had to reach and the way our own five year plan crumbled once it’s key architect departed leaves me to severely doubt if Championship status is achievable or sustainable under the current hierarchy and business model. For a notoriously risk averse business, such a progression looks a lot more than a step too far right now. More a lighthouse staircase.

As for even considering surviving in the Championship, a division so grossly distorted by the blinkered chase for Premier League riches and the failure funding payments on departure, its apparent that you don’t need a business plan as much as you need deep pockets, vast reserves of cash and the nerve to not worry about how quickly you’re going through it. And that just isn’t us.

So who are we?

Are we a football club being run in the right manner – a bastion of doing things the right way but increasingly seeing ourselves as a goldfish in a school of piranha? Are we a solid entertainment & conference business haemorrhaging hard earned profits to a cash thirsty football team who only carry part of our branding? Or are we nothing more than a pension fund contributor running under the cloak of a sporting ambition. Or something else?

Honestly, my heart says Championship, my eyes say League 1 but my head fears its League 2.

The romantic in me concludes that we’re a 1950s Aston Martin in decent condition that’s been housed in a barn and waiting years for someone to open the doors. Spend a few quid, add a bit of fresh air, love, polish and a decent service and we’ll be ready to roar again. The cynic in me sees a rusty taxi, lubricated with cheap oil and held together with scrap yard spares and back street tig welding with a budget Halfords stereo invariably housing a mix-tape of landfill motown. Run it into the ground because its knacker yard bound.

The reality is somewhere in between, reality is where we are today – where Lincoln City is seen as a better long term option, where two year stays and six month loans are the norm, where staying at a level we’ve spent more time in than anyone else is considered a success, where a manager is still to win a single knockout game, where our management team livestreaming reserve fixtures is considered scouting and where squad quality declines alarmingly on a transfer window by transfer window basis. Where the freehold issue simultaneously protects us and complicates our future. Where we’re a season and a half on from missing out on promotion by one goal.

Yes, it could be worse. It could also be better.

But where we are and what level we’re at matters little in the grand scheme of things. Like so many of us, Walsall is my town, my team and I’m ridiculously proud of them both. Even if I’ve no idea of who we are and what we’re about. The club also know this, just as they know that their boundaries are more elastic than the aforementioned Next & Ikea. Piss us about, feed us garbage and we’ll still return for more – for the football supporter there is no alternative provider.

I’d love to boycott and I genuinely admire those who do, but I can’t. I just can’t. Leaving on 80 minutes is the best I can offer.

For better, for worse, forever – none of us follow this football club because it’s easy. It isn’t and it never will be. Whether it be Arsenal, Bradford, Coventry or Darlaston, the opponent is irrelevant, it’s Walsall we go to see and the Walsall identity we both buy into and help to define. We are Walsall.

But the game I love, and the competition we (try to) compete in has been contaminated by money. It appears to have changed forever and I’m not sure we’ve morphed with it. I don’t even think that I’d want us to. Who are we? What are we? Where are we going? Honestly, i have no idea.

 

Deflection Tactics & The Importance of Protest

Every football fan should have the right to say “I am unhappy“. The right to protest should be safeguarded and defended, as protests play an important part in the civil, socio-economic, political, and cultural life of not just football fans, but every civilisation on Earth.

In 2010, a group of supporters tried to raise awareness regarding the pension fund and freehold issues at Walsall FC (and of course, many years before this too). The pension fund, is, of course, in the name of Jeff Bonser – owner and proprietor of Walsall. Questions were asked, feelings made and Cypriot flags taken, but one of the lingering issues at Walsall from those days was when the club inadvertently banned supporters for daring to question the status quo of the club, but, even more worrying, the club took down and destroyed a flag that simply read ‘Freedom of Speech‘. Is that ok?

Freedom of Speech issues at Walsall FC.

Historically, protests have often inspired positive social change and the advancement of organisations, and they continue to help define and protect civic space in all parts of the world. Protests encourage the development of an engaged and informed society and fanbase.  They enable individuals and groups to express dissent and grievances, to share views and opinions, to expose flaws in governance and to publicly demand that the authorities and other powerful entities rectify problems and are accountable for their actions. This is especially important for those whose interests are otherwise poorly represented or marginalised. Digital technologies, such as online forums, Twitter and Facebook, offer new opportunities and challenges to protests, and they are used both as a crucial medium for enabling protests to take place and a platform for protest. Technological advancements have also significantly enhanced the ability of governments to infringe and potentially violate human rights in protests.

Yet football clubs like Walsall FC too often treat protests, or dissension as either an inconvenience to be controlled or a threat to be extinguished.

Fast-forward to January 2018 and increasing discontent with the way Walsall FC is obvious to see. The atmosphere at home games is appalling, the apathy to the club we love is worrying, and the disconnect between the fans the board is of severe concern (See Marshy’s column for a brilliant view on this).

No better evidence for the problems with the club is the Fans Focus Meeting going ahead tonight. Sure, we have been to fans focus meetings before – but this one is different. It is absolutely clear to anyone reading the forums, shouting at Franksy at WM in the car, on Twitter, Facebook, and whomever you sit next to at the game – that Walsall fans want answers from one man: Jeff Bonser.

Jeff, why aren’t you coming to the meeting?

Deflection Tactics

We have earnt the right to be sceptical when it comes to Walsall Football Club. For years now, we haven’t heard anything from our owner. At a time when the fanbase needs leadership more than anything. Where is he? Where are the statements in the press? Where is the public backing of our manager? What are our aims for the future?

We can ask these questions tonight, however we will get the same answer “Only Jeff can answer that“. But this doesn’t mean people shouldn’t go. It is extremely important that Walsall fans make clear that we are unhappy not just with Jon Whitney, but with the governance and future of our club. A strong showing will help strengthen the message of unity and unhappiness within our ranks.

It is completely obvious that this fans focus meeting has been called, not to pacify the fans with answers to the real questions we want answering – but to try and quell our protest. Jon Whitney has been rolled out to divert attention away from the main questions, and dilute the conversation about Jeff, the pension fund, and the future.

Jon Whitney should not be manager of Walsall FC, but he shouldn’t be wheeled out in front of baying supporters to pay lip service and divert folks ire away from Bonser, Gamble, Mole and Pomlett. I am told Whitney asked to do this, but it is up the club to protect him. We forget he has served our club for over a decade, and whilst he is not a manager, he should be treated better by his employers. Tonight is not really the avenue for questioning things on the pitch – that’s what a “Meet the Manager” night is for. This meeting is to discuss things off the pitch (which, of course, affect things on it).

Why? Because this is the reason why we aren’t happy. We aren’t happy with the team, we aren’t happy with the manager, we aren’t happy with being referred to as ‘The Venue. Birmingham‘, but most importantly, we aren’t happy with a man who has complete contempt and ignorance of his supporters. We aren’t happy we have become a sideshow for the ‘Venue’.

Does anything give better evidence that the club doesn’t understand it’s own fanbase by advertising itself as being in Birmingham?

Walsall fans have become apathetic and fractured over the years. However, one thing that protests give is unity and the chance for people to come together all with the same purpose. I believe that protests will help to unite our club. Let’s get some passion back, and enjoy out football club again,

So, the right to protest is yours. Don’t let the club attempt to dilute your anger and dissatisfaction by trying to turn focus to Whitney. Ask why Whitney is there. Ask what the future holds – but don’t ask about chips.